Bordello by Owl and Cat Theatre has a tantalising concept: an immersive theatre piece set in a brothel, where the audience are free to roam throughout a three-storey Richmond terrace and watch stories of the ill-fated occupants unfold around them. Tragically, this particular experience was boring and disorganised, and left me wishing I was at the pub rather than at the theatre.
Bordello inverts Owl and Cat’s theatre space: we are welcomed into what is usually the performance space and given a mask “to protect [our] modesty”, which makes for some excellent pre-show entertainment as my friend and I try to get the damn things to stay on our heads. It needs to be said, though, that people with glasses were not thought of, as they fit neither under or over the mask, making for some interesting times on the vision front. Luckily, I am short-sighted, so I could see everything as long as I was fairly close to the action. But those who struggle to see things close-up may have an interestingly blurry time. It may, however, give the piece a Dali-esque brushstroke, and improved everything somewhat.
I will forgive them for starting late, as it was the preview, but eventually smoke billows out of an open door and each character emerges, to be introduced by a (rather silly) melodramatic voiceover. It gives the air of a live Cluedo game, where our characters are not down-on-their-luck sex workers or pitiable men desperate for love, but Colonel Mustard and Miss Scarlet, who will no doubt soon be found to have struck someone dead in the Conservatory with a candlestick.
The characters disappear back into the gloomy brothel, and we are let loose in the building. At the beginning, I feel a little like a child roaming the house after the parents have gone to bed on Christmas Eve, searching for Santa and calculating just how best to sneak a peek at the presents. But the excitement and intrigue soon wears off as the stories start unfolding, and it becomes clear that this show has not been play tested enough. Or possibly at all.
The action in Bordello centres around three sex workers, three clients, and the madam. The characters’ stories are interwoven, with love triangles and relationship breakdowns and general fragility. Unfortunately though, the actors seem unsure, both in their characterisation and in how they fit in with one another. The stories are intriguing enough I suppose, but it seems there are scripted sections sandwiched between poorly improvised conversations, which seem to want to be genuine but simply descend into melodrama. It is also never really clear who we – the audience – are supposed to be, or what our role is. We are simply plonked in the space, told to stay out of doorways, and wished the best of luck.
There were redeeming moments, though, and I found that the moments I was most intrigued by were those during which it was just me and a single actor in the room. It was then that the feeling of being a ghost haunting the halls of the brothel came into me, and I could fully invest in the place and the characters, instead of feeling that I was in the way, and bored, and annoyed.
The building is beautiful, with narrow steep staircases, intriguing wallpaper and rooms full of nooks and crannies. The set is dressed oddly, though, with anachronisms (Marilyn Monroe poster, anyone?) sneaking into a set that, it is implied, belongs to the 1920s-1930s.
Bordello is a piece that has an excellent premise but a less-than-excellent execution. With more time and testing, it could have been great; but sadly, it is a wasted opportunity.